By Heather Bellow
The police chief sure taught those two teens a lesson. He arrested them for litterin’, threw them in a cell, fined them, and made them haul the trash up the hill after heavy rain.
“Police Chief William J. Obanhein of Stockbridge said later the youths found dragging the junk up the hillside much harder than throwing it down,” The Berkshire Eagle reported in an article about the 1965 Thanksgiving Day arrest. “He said he hoped their case would be an example to others who are careless about disposal of rubbish.”
One of those teens was an 18-year-old Arlo Guthrie, who had attended the nearby Stockbridge School. And the world would soon hear about how “Chief Obie,” as he was known, unwittingly set himself up as a different kind of example — a small-town version of the institutional mentality that orders the absurdities of war. It was all in the song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”
When Guthrie was later drafted for the Vietnam War, it was the littering charge that would make Guthrie “morally unfit,” he tells us in “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” He also says that he had tried other strategies to dodge the draft, like appearing murderous at his exam with the psychiatrist — “Shrink, I want to kill! I want to kill!” — and making sure he was hung over.
The ironies detailed in Guthrie’s musical monologue went far. Officer Obie’s finger wagging didn’t have as much mileage as Guthrie’s satire, which was also turned into a film starring him, directed by Arthur Penn. That movie celebrated its 50th anniversary in August. And now, Guthrie’s tradition of Thanksgiving music begins again. He’ll be playing at the Mahaiwe Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 23, then at his annual Carnegie Hall concert Nov. 30 in New York City — his last. And the Guthrie Center in Housatonic, in the former Trinity Church where all that trash originated in 1965, will hold its annual community Thanksgiving meal.
If only Chief Obanhein had known what he was dealing with. He got his word in with the teens, and with reporters, but the tale lives on as anti-war art in the way of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” or Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.”
“Obie said he was gonna put us in a cell
He said ‘kid, I’m gonna put you in a cell
I want your wallet and your belt’
I said, ‘Obie, I can understand your wantin’ my wallet, so I don’t have any
Money to spend in the cell, but what do you want my belt for?’ and he said
‘Kid, we don’t want any hangins’
I said, ‘Obie, did you think I was gonna
Hang myself for litterin’?’”
This conversation allegedly happened in Stockbridge. Norman Rockwell was still alive and living in town.
“They got three stop signs, two police officers, and one police Car, but when we got to the scene of the crime, there was five police
Officers and three police cars, bein’ the biggest crime of the last fifty
Years and everybody wanted to get in the newspaper story about it
And they was usin’ up all kinds of cop equipment that they had hangin’
Around the Police Officer Station.”
If that wasn’t enough, Guthrie tried to dodge by getting drunk the night before and telling the draft board psychiatrist he wanted to “kill, kill, kill,” but they told him to get a “moral waiver” because of the littering charge.
It was in Lee District Court that Guthrie and his friend Richard Robbins pleaded guilty and each paid a $25 fine. They had tried to take it to the Great Barrington dump but found it closed on Thanksgiving Day.
We know the rest.
But it wasn’t just holiday garbage, as it turned out. The trash had been accumulating in the former Trinity Church — it’s now The Guthrie Center — then owned by Alice and Ray Brock. That is Alice of “Alice’s Restaurant,” which was in Stockbridge. The couple had been host to beatniks like Guthrie, who had helped pack the trash into a red Volkswagen bus.
“The junk included a divan, plus nearly enough bottles, garbage, papers and boxes to fill their Volkswagen bus,” The Eagle reported, noting that it was dumped into the Nelson Foote Sr. property on Prospect Street.
“Chief Obanhein told the court he spent a ‘very disagreeable two hours’ looking through the rubbish before finding a clue to who had thrown it there.”
It was a scrap of paper that police traced back to the church, Guthrie and Robbins.
The legend lives on. In July, someone dumped a pile of refuse in and around the Guthrie Center’s dumpster while a renovation to the building was underway.
There was even a couch with weeds growing between the cushions. A sign attached to it said: “Officer Obie made me do it!”
Heather Bellow is the Southern Berkshires reporter for the Berkshire Eagle and a member of the paper’s investigative reporting team. She has two grown children and lives in Great Barrington.